Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tales from the Slippery Slope: III

I was too late getting to The Slippery Slope this Thursday, and missed dinner. When I arrived I found Susan Bond, the owner of the bathroom fixtures emporium Vanity of Vanities, talking to John Strype the undertaker and Tom Chillingworth from the bookstore. Fr Hawker was nowhere to be seen. Tom said, “You picked a good night to miss dinner, Will.”
“Oh?” said I.
“Mike and David were having some kind of spat,” John began, but Susan interrupted, “More of a tiff, I think.”
“Tiff, then,” continued John. “No idea what it was about, but the boys were upset, the food below par, and the service worse. Fr Hawker and Keith went off to talk some sense into them.”
Just then the priest and landlord returned. “Peace in our time,” said Keith, who greeted me, and went to get me a glass of claret. Fr Hawker sat down and picked up a glass.
“Generosity of heart is one of the secrets to good cooking;” he said, “anger and peevishness drive out generosity. But I think we have restored charity to those lads. They are too fond of each other to fall out seriously. Hmmm ... Generosity of spirit and cooking; makes me think of the old story of Stone Soup.”
Susan said, “Funny that you should mention Stone Soup. Last night I found a variant of it in The Sack-Full of News (a book of tales from the mid-sixteenth century). It might be a good tale for this evening.”
“I’m not sure I remember Stone Soup,” said the undertaker.
I said, “Can I give it quickly, Susan? She nodded, and I began,

Stone Soup
Once upon a time, two wanderers came at the end of the day to a poor little village, and sat down by the roadside to rest their weary feet. After a bit they go into the village to beg for food, but are told that no one has any food to share. “We’re starving ourselves!” was the constant refrain.
“Oh,” said the first vagabond, whom we’ll call Bob, “then we’ll have to share with you.”
“O ho!”, said the vllagers, “you were begging, and now you’ll share?”
The second traveller, Jack, said, “But my friends, we know how to make soup from a stone.”
The villagers watched with growing fascination as Bob lit a fire, and Jack filled a
pot with water and set it to boil. Some who tell this tale say that the two carried the pot with them on their travels; others that the villagers were willing to lend them that, even if they had no food to share. I don’t know which is the true version. I do know that the travellers chatted amiably with the villagers while the water came to a boil, at which Jack put in one medium-sized, clean stone. “Note this, my friends; the stone must be put in boiling water. They all nodded gravely.
“Hmmmm,” said Bob; “this will be wonderful, a soup to gladden the most sensitive gourmet” They all nodded gravely.
Soon enough, a woman snorted, “Not much flavour that I can smell; you haven’t put in enough onion – good soup needs onion.” With that she ran home and chopped a couple of onions and brought them for the soup.
Well, I won’t give all the details of how the other villagers, partly take in by the performance, and partly refusing to be outdone by their neighbours. brought everything that can make a wonderful soup – and possibly some that can’t.
In the end, of course, everyone enjoyed the soup. After the travellers left, they were remembered fondly, and even in the worst of times the villagers remembered how to make soup from a stone.
“Thank you,” said John, “I remember it now. Now Susan, what’s your version?"
“It’s not as nice a story,” she said, “nor perhaps as moral, but it is funnier, I think. With that, she began the tale of

Buttered Whetstone
They tell of a friar who lived in London back in the days of the old religion. This friar often used to visit a particular old woman in town, but every time he came to her house, she hid all the food she had. In these stories friars are often looking
fro food. So one day the friar came to her house along with a few friends. When
they all came into the house he demanded if she had any food.
She said, “No,” just like that.
“Well”, said the friar, you don’t have a whetstone do you?
“Yes,” said the woman; “what do you want to do with it?”
“Why, I want to make food from it,” he said, and added under his breath “Since you won’t share any.”
So she brought a whetstone.
Then he asked her if she had a frying-pan.
"Yes,” said she, “but what the devil are you going to do with that?
The Friar answered, “Why, you shall see by and by what I will do with that!”; and when she gve him the pan, he set it on the fire, and put the whetstone in it.
“Cock’s body!” said the woman, “you’re going to burn the pan.”
Susan stopped the story a moment, “I was wondering. What’s ‘Cock’s body’? It’s in a lot of these old anecdotes.” Fr Hawker said, “People in those days often said ‘Cock’s’ instead of ‘God’s’. It seems to have been a corruption rather than a euphemism.” “Odd, that,” said Susan, and carried on.

“No, no,” said the friar, “if you will give me some eggs, it will not burn at all.” She wanted to take the pan from him, convinced that it was in danger; but he would not let her, and insisted that she fetch him some eggs. Finally she got him two eggs.
“Tush,” said the friar, “These are hardly enough! Go fetch ten or twelve. So the good woman had to fetch more, for fear that the pan should burn; and when he had them, he put them in the pan.
“Now,” he said, “unless we add some butter, the pan will surely burn and the eggs too.”
So the woman, who was understandably reluctant to have her pan burnt, and her eggs lost, has to get a dish of butter, which he put into the pan.
When the eggs were all cooked, he served them to his friends at the table, saying: “Much good may it do you, my Masters; now may you say, you have eaten of a buttered whetstone.” At this they all laughed, but the woman was exceeding angry, because the friar had subtly tricked her out of her food.

Tom said, “No, it’s not as nice a story as Stone Soup. And the moral is different: the villagers learn generosity; this woman is only punished and mocked for hiding her food away. She doesn’t even seem to get any of her own eggs.”
"And the friar is sharper than Bob and Jack,” said Susan.
“That’s why he used a whetstone,” said the priest, at which we all laughed politely and called it a night.
With apologies to the real Susan Bond, who deserves more thanks than this for coming up with the perfect name for a shop that sells bathroom fixtures.

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